Last winter I began thinking about a road trip to Idaho to visit our son Drew and his family. Then when he told us they had decided to move back to Georgia, I knew time was running out to visit Idaho. So I volunteered to help with the move. That resulted in an epic road trip involving 1700 train miles, about 2600 truck miles, 1150 air miles, and 300 car miles for a grand total of about 5750 miles, through 14 states in 12 days. (For comparison purposes, NY to LA and back is 5600 miles.) This is the first part of that epic adventure, my first long distance train ride since a snowy overnight train trip down the Appennine peninsula in 1985, and before that a 1963 school field trip to Washington DC.
Madison hasn’t had a train depot since around the time I went to college, back in the seventies. The nearest depot is about 30 miles away. When I showed up at the Columbus railroad depot, I found a number of other people ready to hop on the west-bound Amtrak Empire Builder.
The train seemed pretty full but there were a few vacant seats. And the seats were a lot more spacious and comfortable than airline seats.
It was a beautiful evening and I enjoyed watching the luscious green Wisconsin countryside pass by.
Soon I made my way to the observation car for a better view of the scenery. And where it was easy to make new friends. I was soon getting to know David and Lucy who were traveling to Glacier National Park from their home in Athens, Ohio. Later I heard another couple speaking an unfamiliar language. It turned out they were from Wales, and were speaking Welch. I enjoyed getting to know them as well.
There was some interaction with the traffic that we blocked when we stopped in towns like Tomah.
Between Tomah and LaCrosse we saw some large sand mining operations that have sprung up in just the past three years. Wisconsin’s sand is in high demand for frac mining in other parts of the country.
There were also some Amish on the train.
And a lady with a fascination with bridges.
We crossed the Mississippi River at LaCrosse: east channel.
And the west channel.
Farther north we were across the river from Wisconsin’s Perrot State Park and the village of Trempeleau, which takes it’s name from this mountain, the mountain whose foot is bathed in water.
We passed this sailboat and a barge on Lake Pepin as the sunset settled in after a beautiful day.
The night was was on us as we reached the Twin Cities.
We got a chance to get off and stretch our legs on solid ground for a few minutes.
The next thing I remember was waking up to a bright pre-dawn sky just north of Fargo, ND. As regularly happened, Amtrak was stopped for a few minutes to let a freight pass by.
The train crept through several more sleeping towns while the sun rose and then disappeared behind thick clouds.
Soon the sky cleared up and we were rolling across the Great Plains. There were a few windmills out on the plains, but not as many as I expected.
What I didn’t expect was all of the small ponds, potholes, and mini lakes. I saw quite a few sea gulls and, I think, even a pelican.
I did expect to see a lot of distant horizons.
Grain elevators are the perpendiculars of the Great Plains.
I had lots of time to talk with and get to know my seat-mate, Leo Machado, a truck driver in the oil fields of North Dakota.
Not all of North Dakota is flat, such as this area near Minot.
But a lot of it is very flat. This is U.S. highway 2, which parallels the Great Northern railroad tracks across much of the Great Plains.
I noticed lots of temporary housing along the tracks as we neared the North Dakota oil boom town of Williston.
This looks like Williston’s oil refinery
I was surprised to see law enforcement meeting the train at Williston. We never found out what they were looking for, but it gave us a little excitement of the Wild West.
You couldn’t miss all of the oil wells
We also passed a clean-up operation from a recent rail accident.
We just continued to roll along across the flat prairie…
past oil tankers and grain elevators.
This relic of the rails is preserved next to the depot in Havre MT. It’s the only survivor of its class from the steam era, and attracted the attention of the Amish passengers on our train.
The harvest has begun in western Montana.
The mountains finally started to show up on the horizon, to the south at first, and then to the west.
The Rockys in sight
We entered the mountains at Glacier National Park just as the sun was going down.
Glacier National Park in the dark isn’t much to see. At one point several cars were added to the train and the electric system wouldn’t restart so we were sitting in the dark for a half hour or so. We were supposed to be to Idaho around midnight but we had been several hours behind schedule for much of the day. Finally, just before dawn the next morning, as the skies began to brighten, we reached Sandpoint ID. Drew was there to meet me. Fortunately we’d been able to text back and forth and he didn’t miss too much sleep. Part one of the epic road trip was over, what fun!